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Speak Up And Support Others – Alterrell Mills, Harvard MBA Class of 2018

Alterrell Mills 
Alterrell Mills 
  • Name: Alterrell Mills 
  • Undergrad: Harvard
  • Business School and Program: Harvard Business School, MBA
  • Current Professional Position: Entrepreneur + Coach 

Please could you give us a brief overview of your background and career so far, and what your role is now? 

Before business school, I was working in corporate strategy and partnerships. After business school, I’ve tried my hand in several areas including strategy, program management, operations, and client services. As of now, I am an entrepreneur that is trying to do meaningful work that helps people and use the skills I attained to build a sustainable company. 

How did your experience at business school help you with the next stages of your career? 

I studied psychology in undergrad and spent my pre-MBA career making PowerPoint presentations and negotiating contracts. Business school not only helped me understand the importance of accounting, financial valuations, and operations, but also allowed me to dive deeper into organizational behaviour, culture building, and management.

I remember sitting in my first year leadership class reflecting on all that I had not understood while I was an Analyst at American Express. The rationale behind management and people decisions was like a cloudy sky with the sun finally beaming through. I realized paying attention to the people parts of business decisions is what I needed both work experience and time away from work to contextualize and synthesize some of the great frameworks we learn at HBS. 

After the MBA, I realized that anything was possible if I could go from being completely unaware of how to build a discounted cash flow model to explaining to my summer roommate why the business idea he had needed some tweaking. I started to see the mechanics of how business was done from the operations of a fast food chain, to the strategy of start-ups, to the leadership decisions that lead to inequity in the workplace.

The MBA experience can be incredibly valuable in exposing you to new concepts, but also people with lived experiences that can really shift your perspective. 

Can you tell us about your experience as a Black student at business school and subsequent career. Were there challenges you faced and how did you deal with them? 

As a Black student at HBS, I believed there was a lot of opportunity for improvement. It is why I decided to run for Co-President of the African-American Student Union (AASU) on campus. I believed I could make meaningful change by building a coalition of my peers using many of the leadership and organization frameworks we had learned in our first year courses. Some of the areas for improvement were around the lack of data on representation in cases and among faculty, classroom protocols that allowed for potential racial bias, and a lack of training future business leaders in how to manage diverse teams. 

For my own experience while at HBS, I experienced more challenges from the administration than my peers. My classmates were all very well intentioned people who followed the rules HBS implicitly sets out for us. For example, in attempting to advocate for more representation in our curriculum, faculty members were the biggest obstacle to progress. I even created an award voted on by students in an attempt to incentivize writing more cases that covered diverse leaders and topics relevant to managing gender and racially diverse teams. 

“Oddly, as an employee we all understand our role to ensure the company does not lose money or is not marketed badly, but somehow race and gender are the responsibilities of a few who aren’t given the resources to make meaningful, sustained change.” 

Alterrell Mills 

The challenges around data were addressed after 2020 coming from student involvement and a case study I published. Improved classroom protocols and training have yet to be implemented. In my second year, I was selected with three other students to complete an independent study under the deans of the school to help make the MBA program more inclusive. Unfortunately, several of the interventions we proposed were rejected despite an existing precedent for success. 

In my career, I am not sure what to attribute to race or how people perceive graduates of Harvard. It is a bind I also experienced in my first job after graduating from Harvard undergrad. After college, it was “of course you know that, you went to Harvard” or it was “how could you not know that, didn’t you go to Harvard?” Post-MBA, I often hear something similar about having two Harvard degrees as the rationale for why I might be too bored to be considered for a job I am really passionate about, why I am qualified to mentor someone in an area that is not my expertise, or a myriad of other projections that are beyond my control.

It’s in a way, a champagne problem that no one tells you about before you choose your MBA program. Nearly half of all Black HBS graduates hold an undergraduate degree for an Ivy League or top-ranked schools like Stanford, MIT and Howard. But educational prestige does not do much when you’re competing against race-based pay inequity or promotions that are much harder to quantify. 

What do you think needs to be done to create a more inclusive environment for Black people in business and management education? 

I have an answer, but it is hard to explain easily.  In my first year, the Black students did a presentation during Black History Month to help provide supplemental information especially to international students. The first question asked was: is it offensive to call you African American, or can we call you Black? Many people entering graduate management education — as is the case in American society and the workplace — are more focused on saying the right words to describe people and not enough on nuance. In my section at HBS, we had panels after complex cases where we asked our classmates our burning questions. We had a panel from our several Muslim students after a case on Saudi Arabia and one with our Chinese-born classmates after a case on China. We were all provided the space and opportunity to see the differences in opinion of a group that could be viewed as monolithic to an outsider. It was something our section decided to do. This could easily been curated and a suggested activity within management programs. 

HBS and many schools have continuing education programs for senior leaders and executives. How many of those programs go beyond inclusion and talk about managing inclusively? What does it mean to manage Gen Z, Y and X if your company is mixed? What adjustments should managers make (or not) if they do not know how to have a culturally competent conversation? If the beacons of management education are not creating practical content — and only relying on their faculty, then they are already behind. For example, there are probably amazing managers of age, race, and gender diverse teams who are NOT the CEOs of companies and therefore not on HBS’ radar to interview. You can probably think of some. Imagine if their best practices were published in HBR and not just someone who was the CEO of a diverse company. 

I come back to this being an institutional problem. Educational institutions are not usually the places of innovation, so why wouldn’t we spend more time learning where innovation happens and then incorporating that into curriculum? 

What do you think will be an indicator that we are achieving racial equality in business? 

I think this is a really broad question that is potentially disastrous to attempt to answer succinctly. Here’s what I would like to counter. What does it mean for a company to have a Black and/or woman CEO if pay equity across race and gender within the company has not been achieved? What does it mean to have a Latino member of your Board who is the only person bringing in diverse talent to the organization? Oddly, as an employee we all understand our role to ensure the company does not lose money or is not marketed badly, but somehow race and gender are the responsibilities of a few who aren’t given the resources to make meaningful, sustained change. 

“The goal is to develop empathy and compassion — and to be able to name someone who is impacted by your choice to speak up or remain quiet.”

Alterrell Mills 

Can you name an initiative or an individual who is helping to create a more inclusive environment for Black business professionals? 

What an intriguing question given this legal climate. Since 2016, Project Diane has tracked the fewer than 400 Black women founders who have raised over $1M. The data was so valuable in exposing inequity that investors started to check some of their own potential biases. And then this year, some of those investors are being sued for trying to create a level playing field. I think the best take away is that tracking results and outcomes are essential for progress to start, but there are still significant hurdles to getting close to equity. 

The solution is not to rely on a single person or initiative, because this is a distributed problem. In my career, white people who have been able to interrupt the biases or structural inequities embedded within a hiring, performance, and compensation process have been able to allow me to get closer to equity. As a man, I try to speak up when women are being disenfranchised because I know that my word might carry more weight or at least the consequence will be less severe than if a woman spoke up. There are so many things that we can all do to make change happen. You fill a lake one rain drop at a time. 

What advice would you have for Black business school students as they begin their MBA, or pursue the next stage of their career? 

My advice to those in pursuit of their MBA or to continue the next chapter of their career is to meet a new person each month. And imagine what their life was like and what led them to have similar or differing beliefs from you. Invite them to lunch and attempt to learn what motivates them, what causes they care about, and how you can be a good friend to them.

The goal is to develop empathy and compassion — and to be able to name someone who is impacted by your choice to speak up or remain quiet. Imagine if you had to put a name to your decision to layoff an entire unit, expand into a market with a potentially predatory product, or someone to call for advice when launching a culturally competent new product. 

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